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By John Geary
(for Travel Writers’ Tales)

“If you look back, you should see a bald eagle trailing not too far behind us,” says tour guide Donelda MacAskill. “She’s looking for some fish, we’ll see if we can help her out! Keep your cameras ready on the left side!”

A minute later, we see a fish come flying out of the boat and splash into the ocean. Seconds later, the eagle swoops down and grabs it in its talons, soaring off quickly to devour its treat.

Just a few minutes out on our “two-hour tour” northeast down a narrow inlet toward the North Atlantic Ocean, and we’ve already seen our first bird.

While bird and wildlife watchers always seem to enjoy seeing bald eagles, on this trip we aren’t here to see just eagles. Venturing out with Donelda’s Puffin Tours, we hope to see Atlantic puffins.

These comical-looking birds—sometimes referred to as “sea-parrots”—nest and live on a small group of islands named, appropriately enough, the Bird Islands, off the coast of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. They’re one of many “must-see” species for serious birders, but you don’t have to be like the Owen Wilson or Steve Martin characters in The Big Year movie to appreciate and enjoy these creatures.

Atlantic puffins can live to be more than 30 years old, they start reproducing between the ages of three and six. They are listed as endangered in Europe, but are considered of “least concern” in North America. However, there is concern that may change in the ocean south of Maine due to rising temperatures affecting the fish which is their main food source.

For now though, the puffins off the Atlantic coast of Canada are safe.

While making our way to the islands, our tour guide—a former lobster fisher with her husband John, the boat’s captain—gives us a brief history of the area and tells us what it was like working in the lobster trade. The small port in Englishtown where we put out traces its roots back to 1597.

As we cruise down the inlet on the Highland Lass enjoying the sea breeze and the dark green forested shores on either side, we spot a double crested cormorant zipping by, flying just a few feet above the water’s surface. A few minutes later, another pair float by, bobbing on the waves, quite unconcerned about the boat chugging past in the opposite direction.

In just under 45 minutes, we see the islands at the mouth of the inlet so we start scanning the water for puffins and other seabirds. As we get close, we spot dozens of cormorants on the rocks surrounding the large islands, many of them spreading their wings out to dry as all cormorants must do. There are also a few great black-headed gulls among them—the main predator of puffin eggs and chicks in this part of the world.

br> (Photo #1) - A cormorant dries its wings on a rock while a great black-backed gull watches

As we cruise slowly toward the island which is home to the puffins, we encounter several razorbills, often referred as the “Cape Breton penguins” due to their physical resemblance to those other aquatic birds.

(Photo #2) - Razorbills – a.k.a. Cape Breton penguins – gather on a rock.

Then - we see one! A puffin floats on the ocean between the boat and the shore, bobbing placidly on the water, calmly grooming its wing and tail feathers. Soon we glide by the island and spot several pairs of puffins along the steep cliffside shores, outside their nest cavities that are dug into the cliffsides.

(Photo #3) - An Atlantic puffin grooms on the ocean.

On these tours, it’s not always about the birds. Occasionally you can spot a whale, although we don’t see any during our tour. However, we do see several seals basking on rocks and swimming around in the waters surrounding the islands. As we round the last island and turn our bow back to start the journey home, we spot several black guillemots, another species of sea-going bird. We cruise past the islands’ other side, and spy several more puffins both on the shore and in the water. Then before long, we’re past the islands and heading home for good.

(Photo #4) - A pair of puffins stand guard outside their nest

We haven’t seen the last birds, however. About halfway home, along the southeast shore of the inlet right by a waterfall, sits a bald eagle on a rock, basking in the sunlight. While it probably isn’t the same eagle we began our tour with, it seems fitting to be closing out the adventure accompanied by another avian guide for our journey along the inlet.

(Photo #5) - A bald eagle surveys the waters of the inlet next to a waterfall



• You can learn more about the tours, their schedule, and the costs at

• The site also has good directions about how to get to their dock, whether you’re coming from elsewhere on the island or even from a cruise ship, at

• Looking for other activities while in Cape Breton Island? Check out

• Several airlines fly into Cape Breton Island, including Air Canada and WestJet

PHOTOS: By John Geary

Photo #1: A cormorants dries its wings on a rock while a great black-backed gull watches.

Photo #2: Razorbills – a.k.a. Cape Breton penguins – gather on a rock.

Photo #3: An Atlantic puffins grooms on the ocean.

Photo #4: A pair of puffins stand guard outside their nest.

Photo #5: A bald eagle surveys the waters of the inlet next to a waterfall

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